[by Jason Randall]
“On your mark, get set, go!”
It’s a litany that started every childhood race when I grew up. The sequence made good sense and even carried over into high school track and field races and beyond because it offered contestants a little time to prepare before actually beginning to race. Even as kids, we realized the importance of being ready and focused.
The good habits we learn as kids usually benefit us as adults, especially when it comes to preparation. It also applies to angling. I’m not referring to the “getting ready for each trip to the river” part, or even organizing your fly box—both of which, by the way, are important. I’m talking about focus and readiness on the river. Apply the same “on your mark, get set, go!” preparation before each cast, because if you plan ahead as to how you’re going to hook, play, and land each fish, you’ll end up with more fish in the net at the end of the day.
On Your Mark: Anticipate Strikes
As part of pregame preparation, before you make the first cast to a new stretch of water, envision the cast and drift required for an ideal presentation. By that point, you should’ve already located the feeding lanes and marked each potential feeding lie. You’ll also have factored in the effect of the current, the problems it poses for an ideal drift, and taken the best angling position. (See “Approach with ‘Extreme’ Caution”) But take it one step further; anticipate when the strike will most likely occur during the drift and what it might look like. Predict the strike so when it happens, you won’t think I wonder if that was a strike. You’ll react instinctively instead of second-guessing yourself.
No two strikes are exactly the same; they come in all types and variations, no matter if you’re fishing with a dry fly or a subsurface presentation. In fast flows, strikes are often more obvious, as a trout noses into the current to capture a morsel before immediately ducking back into cover. You usually won’t mistake that kind of strike, either as a splashy rise to a dry fly or a dramatic shift in motion from a strike indicator. In slow-moving or slack water, however, strikes are often less obvious when a trout may follow a food item and simply waft your fly into its mouth by flaring its gill plates. Anglers often miss those strikes because the visible clues we see may be only a slight pause or dip of a strike indicator, or a gentle sip of a dry fly where a bubble replaces it. Anticipating a strike and visualizing it ahead of time help you react quicker because if you don’t immediately recognize those clues, you’re probably going to be too late. A trout can eject the fly as fast as a cough if you’re slow on the trigger.
The early recognition of strikes is critical for midge fishing when anglers often guess at, rather than detect, most strikes. Knowing approximately where a fish will eat ahead of time keeps you dialed in during the drift. If you’re fishing midge flies under the surface, use two small pinch-on foam indicators rather than one so you’ll have two connected points of reference. Watching a single foam indicator from 30 or 40 feet away or more, you can’t always tell if it slows slightly, but a second piece of foam six to nine inches away from the first serves as a reference you can see. Train your eye to be aware of the slightest movement of one indicator relative to the other. If the lower indicator moves away from the upper one, set the hook; it’s usually a subtle strike. Even with this advantage, it takes considerable focus, but anticipating a subtle strike will help you react quickly enough to increase your hookup percentage.
When nymph fishing with a sighter instead of a flotation indicator, effective strike detection requires concentration, too. A sighter replaces a flotation-style indicator and is a section of highly visible monofilament, usually bright red or green, incorporated into the leader just above where it enters the water. It’s much easier to see and track than trying to watch a clear leader. Once again, the obvious strikes are easy to see, but train your eye for the subtle tightening or change in the slope of the sighter segment. Visualizing a subtle change ahead of time can shorten the learning curve if you’re new to this technique and improve the catch rate of those who are experienced in using it.
Envision a strike on every cast—it’ll improve your focus, keep your head in the game, and help you stay attuned to the subtle strikes that might otherwise go undetected. By anticipating a strike on every drift, you might develop a “hair trigger” reaction for setting the hook, which is not a bad thing. Remember, even if you don’t draw tight to a fish, a failed hook set is merely the beginning of the next cast.
Get Set: Plan the Outcome
Hook sets are often a foregone conclusion—something anglers really don’t think about ahead of time. Perhaps we just figure we’ll react reflexively when the time comes by lifting the rod, and when we miss fish, we assume we were either too late or it was just dumb luck. But we can minimize dumb luck, or turn bad luck into good luck, by planning ahead. While timing is important, there’s a lot more that goes into a proper and effective hookset. Planning how you’re going to set the hook is just as important as detecting the strike.
When your position is below (downstream) of a fish and you are casting upstream to it, a firm lift of the rod is usually an effective hook set. Because the fish is also facing upstream, this maneuver drives the hook into its hard upper mouth. Even if you’re nymphing upstream with modern tight-line techniques, setting the hook by lifting the rod tip works just fine.
But when you are upstream of a fish and fishing downstream to it, hook sets are more difficult. An upstream, lifting hook set tends to pull the fly out of a fish’s mouth. To prevent that from happening, adjust the direction of the hook set and pull more across the stream to one side or another, rather than directly away from the trout (upstream).
For example, imagine you’re nymph fishing from the river’s edge and facing a current that is flowing from right to left. When a strike occurs in the last third of the drift, the angle between the fish and you might be at 45 degrees. An upstream hook set (to your right) leads to more missed hookups, but an across-stream hook set (sidearm to the angler’s left) is more effective because at that angle, there’s a greater chance for the hook point to pierce the corner of the fish’s mouth.
Many nymph-fishing strikes occur at the end of the nymph drift, as the leader tightens to the fly and causes it to turn headfirst into the current and rise like an emerging insect. Jim Leisenring was one of the first writers to describe this tactic, and it has since been dubbed the Leisenring’s lift. Once again, be prepared to sweep the rod across the current during the hook set, driving the hook into the outer or upper part of the fish’s mouth rather than tugging the fly out of its mouth. In every case, you need to figure out the best direction of your hook set before the first cast so you’ll avoid the natural inclination to simply lift the rod.
For downstream dry flies, a quick trigger in that situation actually works against you. In fact, you need to build in a delay to your motions before making those types of hook sets. Let the trout grab the fly and turn away, either toward the bottom or to the side, as it returns to its lie. Reciting a phrase like “God Save the Queen,” before you set the hook is an option, but if you’re ambivalent about Her Royal Highness, you can make up your own American alternative. Or you count two seconds before setting on the two. Whatever your mental device for slowing things down, it will take some discipline and practice to get it right, but if you consciously make this decision ahead of time, review it a few times in your head, and envision the delayed hook set, it’s easier to execute at the moment of truth.
Wet flies fished on a downstream swing are a much different ball game because fish often set the hook themselves (if you let them) as they turn for cover. Simply avoid making the firm lift that pulls the fly away from their mouths. You’ll still need to drive the hook point home, but a short strip set, just as you’d make if fishing streamers, is sometimes the best maneuver. As an alternative, make a sidearm sweep-set across stream like that described earlier.
Recently, I was talking about hook sets with noted angler Ed Engle, and he recommended pushing the rod at the fish, or lowering the rod tip just long enough to let the fish turn and swim back to its feeding lie, then firmly striping the line, which sets the hook in the process. Once again, getting your mind and muscles to do what they should do versus what they want to do takes a little discipline, so rehearse your motions mentally beforehand, and you won’t be so likely to rip the hook out of the fish’s mouth.
One more question needs an answer before the first cast— where are you going to play and land your fish? You’ll want to get it out of fast current and into slow water as soon as possible so you’re not fighting the stream flow as well as the fish. Look around to identify likely cover such as rock piles, deep water, and logjams, where a hooked fish may likely bolt. Those are bad places to lose a fish during the fight, so use side pressure to steer it away from fish-losing trouble spots by holding the bent rod horizontally, rather than directly above, your head. Lead the trout into calmer water to regain the advantage. If you’re generally working in an upstream manner, pick a calm water outlet below you that’s out of the fast current to corral your fish. If you’re working in a downstream manner as you fish, lead the fish to the river’s edge as soon as possible to avoid a downstream run that might blow up the water you plan to fish next.
You can land small fish almost anywhere, but if you don’t plan ahead, you might lose your best fish of the day. However, sometimes the best place to land a fish is the area you’re playing it because you’ve essentially already disturbed that water, and having an easy-to-access net always puts more odds in your favor. I prefer landing a fish with a net instead of handling it or pulling it into the shallows, where sharp rocks can cause injury. Additionally, by using a long-handled net, you don’t have to play out the fish as much as you do without one. A good net can also improve a fish’s chances of survival after release. (See “Dip & Scoop” in the May/June 2016 issue of American Angler.) I prefer a soft, fish-friendly, rubber-basket net to mesh nets because the webbing is not so hard on the fish.
GO! Execute Your Plan
After you’ve thought out the preceding factors, you’re ready to make that first cast and present the fly. During the presentation, trap the fly line to the cork handle with your index or middle finger—it’s a great “ready” position, equivalent to keeping your finger on the trigger of a gun. Moreover, this position will help you with line management and control, and it sets up the hook set— when the strike happens, you won’t be fumbling with line.
With a plan in place that allows you to anticipate all manner of strikes, and a place scoped out to play and land your fish, the execution is the easy (and fun) part—it’ll seem as though you’ve already rehearsed it. In the theater world, that’s why play directors schedule so many practices and rehearsals—so opening night goes off without a hitch. If you bring the same mentality to your fly fishing, your opening drift will also go just as smoothly.
Jason Randall is a frequent contributor to American Angler and the author of the Fly Fisher’s Guide trilogy. His latest book, Nymph Masters: Fly Fishing Secrets from Expert Anglers, was released by Stackpole/Headwaters Books in March 2017.